Review: Classical Deception: Counterfeits, Forgeries and Reproductions of Ancient Coins

Wayne G. Sayles, Classical Deception: Counterfeits, Forgeries and Reproductions of Ancient Coins. Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001. 196 pp., 200 b/w illus. Hb. ISBN 0-87341-968-5. US $24.95

Whether we are fully conscious of it, or not, we are faced with the issue of forgery almost every day. Lately, when we open the newspaper we find stories of forged documents or fake antiquities, both of which would have changed the way we look at the world and history if they had been authentic. When we go to some stores we are informed that we are unable to pay with certain denominations because of concerns over forgery, and when we do pay, the bills used to complete the transaction are filled with features designed to stop counterfeiters from copying them successfully. If such concerns about forgeries and counterfeits haunt the world at large, these same concerns are magnified many times over in the specialized world of the numismatist. For protection, organizations such as the International Bureau for the Suppression of Counterfeit Coins have been formed to report on known forgeries and public discussions of the problem, such as that recently held at the 13th International Numismatic Congress, have become commonplace. Indeed, if one were restricted to information coming from several well known numismatic internet groups one might get the impression that the numismatic community is simply neurotic concerning forgeries of ancient coins. Thus, Wayne Sayles’ Classical Deception is a very timely book that will be appreciated by a broad spectrum of numismatists as well as those interested in the history of art forgery.

The present work is best understood as a large-scale appendix to the author’s highly successful six volume series, Ancient Coin Collecting, which served to introduce readers to various coin series and the cultures that produced them. Classical Deception tempers the earlier works with the warning that that forgery is a very real danger to even seasoned numismatists. The organization of Classical Deception will be familiar to readers of Sayles’ earlier works, in that it is divided into major thematic sections within which specific topics. At the end of the larger sections, as well as many of the smaller topics that comprise them, important bibliography is also provided. As with Ancient Coin Collecting, Classical Deception is intended as an introduction and a point of departure for further study.

The new book will also be familiar in that it continues to employ some of the unorthodox terminology developed by the author elsewhere, although to Sayles’ credit he points out his peculiar usages in the preface to avoid causing undue confusion. For example, he perseveres in the belief that the term “obverse” should refer to the side of the coin that bears the “primary motif” and uses the term “Romaion” to refer to the Byzantine Empire. While it is admitted that these oddities appear only rarely in the pages of Classical Deception (very few forgeries of Byzantine coins are discussed, and the obverse/reverse controversy only comes into play regarding a few Corinthian and Sicilian pieces), their increasing use in popular numismatic circles makes it impossible to avoid making some comment on them here.

The argument that the “obverse” should refer to the side with a “primary motif” is groundless on several levels, not the least being that as post-moderns it is absolutely impossible for us to know what exactly a “primary motif” would have been to an ancient Greek or Roman. It is always worth remembering that our tastes cannot be projected back onto the ancient world. The white marble of the Acropolis that we admire in its present state would probably seem quite garish if we could see it in its original brightly painted glory. Even if our tastes and those of the ancients were the same, the Sayles interpretation of “obverse” would play havoc with numismatics as a science. Die studies and the statistics derived from them would cease to have much value if the definition of “obverse” were made entirely subjective. What is “primary” to one individual is not always “primary” to another.

The controversies over “Romaion” and “Byzantine” grow out an article by C.R. Fox, (“What, If Anything, Is a Byzantine?” The Celator 10.3, March, 1996), in which it is pointed out that the rulers and people of the Byzantine Empire saw themselves as the continuators of the old Roman Empire, and never called themselves “Byzantine.” Fox further claims that this use of the term was a pejorative invention of the 18th century. Taking the Fox article to heart and perhaps under the influence of the extreme political correctness that prevails in modern western culture, Sayles has made the replacement of “Byzantine” with “Romaion” his personal crusade. While there is no question that the term “Byzantine” was not used by the peoples of the empire, there is clear historical precedent for its use in western Europe as early as the sixteenth century, when Hieronymus Wolf (1516-1580) planned to write a Corpus byzantinae historiae. A much earlier use is implied by the development of the term “byzant” or “bezant” (i.e. “Byzantine”) to refer to certain gold coins of the early and high Middle Ages. Even without these precedents, the “Romaion” argument flounders on the fact that if “Byzantine” should be changed because it was never used by the people that it describes, we must then change many other long-standing terms. We had better replace the term “Greek” with “Hellenic” when we speak of coinage produced by the cities of Greece and its colonies. No self-respecting ancient Greek ever called himself “Greek,” except for the Graikoi of Epirus, from whom the Romans derived the term “Graeci.” Similarly, we should never refer to the inhabitants of Phoenicia and Etruria as “Phoenicians” and “Etruscans,” but rather we should call them “Canaanites” and “Rasna,” the names by which these peoples referred to themselves. Otherwise, one might have to explain why the Byzantines are deserving of special treatment, but others are not. Surely there should be better grounds for purging the history books of well-established terminology.

Nevertheless, despite the occasional appeal to questionable points of terminology, Sayles provides us with an excellent and entertaining overview of the technology and history of numismatic forgery, while offering advice on detection and further study. In the first major thematic section (pp. 5-31) Classical Deception presents the methods used to produce both legitimate and counterfeit coins in antiquity and forgeries of ancient coins in modern times, with discussion ranging from the casting and plating techniques used by ancient forgers and some of their modern counterparts, to the more recent technologies involved in high pressure stamping and the creation of pressed as well as spark and chemical erosion dies.

The second section (pp. 32-68) is a concise history of forgery, beginning with the Paduan imitations of the sixteenth century that were produced in response to the Renaissance love affair with all things Roman. Here, the work of Giovanni Cavino, the most easily distinguished of the Paduans, is particularly emphasized. Leaving the Renaissance the author treats us to brief accounts of the lives and works of various infamous and obscure forgers from the eithteenth century to the present. As if leading us through some numismatic wax museum, Sayles brings us face to face with some of the nightmare figures of ancient coin forgery and provides bibliography for further research. Becker and Caprara are here, as well as the likes of Christodoulou, Orphanides, and Sazanov. Thinking that these were not sufficient to make the blood of numismatists run cold, the work of many nameless forgers, including those behind the Utmanzai and Geneva forgeries as well as the Black Sea Hoard, are also discussed. The section concludes with brief remarks on forgeries of Alexandrine coinage, perhaps one of the most widely faked series of all ancient coins, as well as on authentic coins that have been altered with a view towards increasing their value.

Having been thoroughly frightened by this gallery of forgers, the reader is permitted to catch his breath and slow his pulse in the somewhat less disturbing section that follows on replicas and reproductions (pp. 69-89). However, while reproductions lack the sinister character of forgeries, in that they are not produced with the intention of deceiving, some are of extremely high quality and might be passed off as authentic coins if they fell into unscrupulous or ignorant hands. The distinction between outright forgery and innocent reproduction is an important one to make, but the line between the two is easily blurred. What might be one person’s replica today is quite likely to become another’s forgery tomorrow, if we consider the accounts given of Robert Ready’s British Museum electrotypes and the works of Slavey Petrov and Peter Rosa. While the first two named individuals are generally well known to numismatists, the latter, a New York jeweller who created a host of reproductions between 1955 and the 1980s, is somewhat more obscure. In order to remedy this situation, the author provides an extended overview of Rosa’s work, including replicas of ancient coins struck and cast in a variety of metals, none of which were ever marked as modern copies. According to Rosa, marking, such as that required in the United States by the Hobby Protection Act of 1969, is tantamount to defacing works of art and therefore something to be avoided at all costs. In the interests of guarding against Rosa reproductions being passed as authentic, an important illustrated catalogue of some 404 Greek, Roman and Judaic preliminary die strikes made in lead, copper and pewter appears in an appendix. Many of these strikes and the Rosa dies used to create them and other replicas can now be studied in the ANS collection, thanks to the generosity of Mr. Sayles.

The author also includes tourist fakes in the replica section because they are easily dismissed as items “not made to fool a collector, but rather to add a personal touch to some tourist’s visit.” However, this stance tends to underestimate the damage that these poorly made coins can cause. This reviewer has never yet seen tourist fakes being sold in their countries of origin as anything other than authentic and the vast number of returned vacationers who come to the ANS seeking confirmation of the authenticity of their recently purchased Athenian decadrachms or other rarities also strongly suggests that they were never told that their coins were intended as mere souvenirs. It cannot be overstressed that tourist fakes are not only dangerous to the wallets of the unwary traveller, but they have the additional potential to pose a threat to personal liberty. Customs personnel almost never have numismatic or archaeological training and therefore may not easily distinguish between a tourist fake and an authentic coin. Thus there is a real risk of being detained (at least until someone can verify that the coin is modern) if one is caught trying to take even a tourist fake out of many countries.

The excellent historical sketches of forgery and reproduction are followed by a thorough overview of the various means used to detect forgeries (pp. 90-107), ranging from the study of artistic style to specific gravity tests, to X-ray and neutron activation analysis. Throughout this section, the author underlines the fact that often many methods must be brought to bear before some of the most dangerous forgeries are fully revealed for what they are. Indeed, it is pointed out that on occasion the failure to use multiple techniques may contribute to the continued survival of forgeries, citing the case of the famous Steuart Colosseum sestertius, whose impressive pedigree and tooling allowed it to go unquestioned for over a century, despite other problems that might otherwise have raised warning signs. Even with the wide variety of tools and methods available to aid in the detection of fakes, it is very clear that uncovering forgeries is still much more of an art than a science. Ultimately the decision to condemn or exonerate a questionable coin depends heavily on the individual’s ability to interpret various clues offered by the object. Even when advanced scientific tools are available, the data that they provide must still be interpreted by their fallible human users, a fact highlighted in the author’s account of the Black Sea Hoard. Thus, in the end the only real defence against the forgery of ancient coins, a defence that can only ever be incomplete, lies in education. The need for education, and self-education in particular, is further underlined by the general absence of controls on the making and selling of reproductions of ancient coins in most countries. Even when attempts are made to curtail the forgery of ancient coins, as in the case of the US Hobby Protection Act, the legal provisions are difficult to enforce and often overlooked. The only true source of protection lies in knowledge and experience. Bearing this in mind, the book concludes with a section (pp. 108-121) aimed at promoting the use of different types of resources for forgery detection, including the workshops and lectures offered by several organizations and a variety of internet sites.

Classical Deception is an interesting and very readable introduction to the dark side of numismatics and the tools that can be used to combat it. Sayles has provided us with a basic drill manual, but it remains for us, as members of our special community, to take care to arm ourselves for the seemingly endless struggle in which we are engaged. The line has been drawn and we are all called to serve in the front ranks.

—Oliver D. Hoover